I hate going back on myself. I don’t know what it is but I’ll go to any length not to have to go back they way I have already come. Even if it means heading for the not often visited highlands near Nebaj to be cold, wet, and share a bath with a complete stranger.
I left Panajachel on Friday morning in very much the same way that I had made my way to Chichi the previous weekend. The exact same way in fact; with no other westerners and the only other English speaking person being a Peruvian volunteer with whom I discussed the effects of a drift towards the Left of Latin American governments (as you do) and who also raised his eyebrows when I told him I planned to cross to Coban through the highlands. “Would you do it?”, I asked, “No” he said. Ah.
At Chichi I caught a mini-van to Santa Cruz del Quiche, the capital of the Quiche province. Santa Cruz was a refreshing change, even if it was only for a couple of hours whilst I waited for a bus to Nebaj. People didn’t seem to be that bothered about me. No one was trying to tout or sell stuff to me. It just an ordinary Guatemalan town which wasn’t on the gringo trail. I even had a woman come up to me whilst I was just sitting there and ask if she could take a photo of me! Well you know I did have my shades on and was wearing my Pop The Toast t-shirt. Carril, a lass from North Wales who I ended up waiting with, was a little quicker off the mark and promptly held out her hand and butted in with “Cinqo Quetzales!”
I arrived in Nebaj mid afternoon after the standard 3 hour chicken bus ride, although I at least didn’t have a small child sitting on me for the most of the journey like Carril. Carril and I checked into the Half Sun Half Moon hostel, booked ourselves on a days trekking and sauna for the next day, and then spend the rest of the afternoon drinking cups of tea, chatting, reading, and sock shopping (for Carril). The climate in Nebaj is cold, cold like a British summer, possibly colder. You definitely need trousers and two layers on top in the evenings. Its also very wet, and grey, and rather grim looking. I think that’s probably what triggered my instinct to find a warm place to drink tea and eat cake.
The next day Carril and I went on our hike to the nearby village of Cocop. We were led by a local Ixil guide Nicholas who was a bit of a funny old fella, quite short, and prone to stopping randomly mid hike for a ‘bit of a lie down’. The first half of the day was a little disappointing since we juts followed the dirt track road out of town up hill to Cocop. The views were pretty impressive from the ridge but I was yearning for some off road action.
On arrival in Cocop Nicholas took us to a local family’s house where we were going to have our lunch. They brought out a couple of tiny chairs for us to sit down on, the sort you toddlers have at nursery school, and I sat down to take in the surroundings. The house was very basic, as you’d imagine. The roof was tiled and supported by half a dozen wooden pillars around the main building which house the fire and a hammock. The yard was mainly hard trodden soil and there was the constant tweeting of young chicks following their mother and the occasional gobble of a turkey in the distance.
Inside the main building the lady of the house was making corn tortillas and cooking them on a large metal plate over the fire. Both Carril and I had a go at making some tortillas but I can say for mine at least that they were bloody awful and I think most of them made the reject pile for the chickens at the end of the meal. However, I did try to break with tradition and crafted myself my very first rectangular tortilla.
Lunch was a soup with the tortillas that we had made earlier. The soup was mainly chicken stock with an egg poached in the middle of it and a collection of green stems and shoots that we had seen growing on a frame outside. I’m not sure what this plant was but it resembled the leaves of a vine plant and had thin curly stems to help cling onto things, at a guess it was pumpkin, courgette or pea. Regardless, it was rather tasty. We ate with our hands and tortillas and drank the remainder of the couple from our bowls being careful to mind the really hot chilly I had added to mine. Dessert was a maize/corn mashed drink with the heap of sugar added to it (there’s a lot of gold teeth in these parts).
We thanked our host and left, this time by a different route, along the river heading out of town. It was really quite picturesque as we walked through meadows and corn fields with the sound of the stream crashing through its rocky bed. And then it started to rain. The remainder of the walk was spent trying to watch our feet as we stumbled along the slippy rocks and muddy path but at least I got some more wear out of the poncho.
When we returned to town we were rather looking forward to our sauna, or a chu, after the days walking. However, what we got wasn’t quite what we expected. I had imagined a Ray Mears style contraption of bent over willow saplings holding up a tarpaulin dome with rocks in the centre heated by an earlier fire on which we good pour on water and get steamy. What was actually case appeared to be a brick hut with a very low entrance at its base, maybe only 2 or 3 feet high, and inside a fire heating a large cauldron of water.
The little Ixil lady that ran the chu started to instruct us to get changed, so I started to change into my swimming shorts and Carril got undressed having already put on her bikini. It was at this point that the little lady stopped us in our tracks and pointed for Carril to get inside before taking off her jeans. Odd we thought but what the heck. I tried to follow but was subsequently shooed out by the lady and told to wait. Once inside, and after much confused conversation in Spanish, we came to realise that what we had in fact signed up for was not a sauna but in fact a bath. Carril had gotten a very odd look at the suggestion of pouring water into the fireplace and was instead instructed to take the hot water and add some to the cold water in a separate bucket and use bowls to pour the warm water over your body.
It was at this point that the lady asked if Carril and I were married. Now, given the situation – two semi-naked westerners in a small very hot enclosed space – we should have said yes. Instead Carril replied, “No, we’re just friends”, and so it became that we had probably committed a very large Guatemalan social faux pas which was the Western equivalent of sharing a bath with someone you’d known all of 24 hours. Despite this, the lady still questioned Carril upon her exit and seeing her bikini why she still had her underwear on.
That evening we wandered around town, grabbed a little street food and also ascertained as to where my 5am collectivo for Coban was to leave the next morning – a supposedly beautiful but bumpy 5 hour ride across the highlands and into the mouth of the El Peten region of Guatemala where I could carry on to the bat caves of Lanquin and the limestone pools of Semuc Champey. And with any luck, a bit of sun.